Meanwhile, elsewhere on the internet….

I’ve been keeping busy with a bit of freelance writing on the side lately.

Over at Radio New Zealand, I’ve written a fond farewell to the Pop-Up Globe, where as I’ve talked about before I spent several great seasons volunteering part-time. The Globe is packing up and leaving Auckland in just a few weeks and is well worth visiting before it goes! Forsooth!

I’ve also been doing a fair amount of book reviewing. Neither of these are online just yet, but if you’re in New Zealand, pick up the latest issue of the New Zealand Listener for my review of the quite good new biography Carrie Fisher: A Life On The Edge.

Also reviewed in today’s Weekend Herald Canvas magazine is New Zealand/Indian author Rajorshi Chakraborti‘s unique spin on superhero fiction, Shakti. Go hunt down a copy!

Amoeba Adventures again: Five more issues free for you

Howdy, a short post to note that five more issues of Amoeba Adventures have been added to the Protoplasm Press section of this site.

As I said last time, I’ll be marking the 30th anniversary of my old small press comics series all year long with free PDF downloads.

Amoeba Adventures issues #2, 13, 17, 20 and Prometheus: The Silent Storm are now up, showcasing some of the best comics from my 1990-1998 series.

Even if you’ve read these issues back in the day, these new free PDF downloads are packed with bonus features and rare artwork (more than 12 pages in a few cases), and guest art/letters from creators including the late Will Eisner, Dave Sim, Tony Isabella, Sergio Aragones and many more.

Go check ’em out!

Celebrating 30 years of Amoeba Adventures – with free stuff!

GROOVY ANNOUNCEMENT TIME: So, I used to do a small-press comic book zine back in the 1990s called Amoeba Adventures. Written and drawn by myself and later with the amazing art of Max Ink, it ran for 27 issues from 1990 to 1998. 

Together with a bunch of spin-offs, specials and the like, as Protoplasm Press I published around 40 comics in that crazy pre-internet era of fanzine-dom, made a few fans, worked with a lot of terrific fellow creators, and generally had a real blast. But time moved on, I got more into my so-called journalism career and also things like getting married, having a kid, and moving clear across to the other side of the world, and before I knew it, years had passed. 

Crazy as it is, 2020 marks the THIRTIETH anniversary of that first issue of Amoeba Adventures. I was an 18-year-old college freshman when I drew most of that first issue, a California kid who ended up in a dorm room, in Mississippi of all places, trying to reinvent himself.  Generally I’m still darned proud of Amoeba Adventures, which grew a lot over 8 years – I compare the scribbles of #1 and the almost professional look of #27 and I’m pretty happy. 

Small press comics were a pretty transient form, limited print runs and photocopied comics, and the stuff a lot of folks sweated to make back in the day can easily vanish without a trace. An awful lot of my Amoeba Adventures days were stored for years in my parents’ basement in California until I finally got around to shipping them to New Zealand. 

Anyway, the point of all this lengthy preamble is that to celebrate 30 years, I’m bringing Amoeba Adventures into the digital era by scanning and making PDFs of all the old issues available for FREE download right here on this website. It’s a lengthy process (some of the issues and artwork are in better shape than others) but I’ve started off by picking five of my favourite issues from back in the day and putting them up right here at the Protoplasm Press link at the menu at the top of the page. I’ve even added ‘bonus material’ to some of the issues from my “Amoeba Archives.” 

This middle-aged retired comic creator still gets a kick out of Amoeba Adventures. I hope those of you who were fans back in the day might too, and maybe even some new readers will enjoy ‘em. I plan on adding more issues every couple of weeks, so do check back, and hopefully will have the entire run online at some point.

If you have trouble downloading the PDFs or any comment on ways I can improve ‘em, just let me know! 

RIP Kirk Douglas, the last man standing

“They’re cheering more than a man tonight. … They’re cheering the story of a boy who rose from the depths of poverty to become Champion of the World!”Champion, 1949, Kirk Douglas’ breakthrough film.

The death of Kirk Douglas isn’t a surprise, I suppose. The man who was born Issur Danielovitch Demsky 103 years ago lived a long, remarkable life, and was the last giant standing from Hollywood’s golden age. He was also always one of my favourites, a reliable jut-jawed, iron-eyed rock who stood tall in many of Hollywood’s greatest – and often quietly subversive – films. 

It’s the end of the line for a pantheon of actors most people only ever saw in black and white, of the stars of the 1940s and ‘50s who dominated Hollywood years before I was even born. There’s a couple others still kicking, but I wouldn’t argue that Olivia de Havilland (also 103!) is quite the icon Douglas became. He was truly the last of the line. He starred with Lauren Bacall and Robert Mitchum and Lana Turner and Laurence Olivier, and they’re all gone now. 

There’ll be a lot of people saying now that “they don’t make them like Kirk Douglas anymore,” but it’s a cliche because it’s true. He was an alpha male from a bygone age, and while times have thankfully changed and a lot of the more odious sexism and racism of that golden age is gone, Kirk Douglas always embraced his swaggering manhood with an edge to it. All impossibly-angled chin and fanatic’s eyes, Douglas chewed the scenery hard, a lot of time, but he never choked on it. 

We’d call it irony, now, but when you look at the martyr Spartacus, the doomed soldier in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, the lost and confused Vincent Van Gogh of Lust For Life, the cowboy left behind by modern life in Lonely Are The Brave, a cruel film producer in The Bad And The Beautiful, you don’t quite see heroes. You see men with flaws, unafraid to break a little. (John Wayne, who thought irony was what you did to clean clothes, once supposedly told Kirk, “We got to play strong, tough characters, not these weak queers.”)

More than Bogart or Cary Grant or Brando, Douglas seemed most comfortable skirting the edge of villainy. I loved Kirk Douglas because his characters were always flawed rogues. No movie shows this better than my favourite of his films, Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace In The Hole, a pitch-black satire of media madness that still stings 70 years on. Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a cynical reporter who rides a tragedy as his ticket back to fame, but loses his soul in the process. There is perhaps no better movie that sums up the Douglas mystique than this bitter pill, a movie that only seems more prescient in 2020. In real life, Douglas was often a supporter of liberal causes, including breaking the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s.

Kirk Douglas lived his fair share of years, and it’s hard to feel gutted at the death of someone who made it to 103. But the fading black-and-white world he represented, the clatter of cowboys on horses and wisecracking cynics in shadowy rooms and a world that seems a million years ago rather than just 60 or 70 years … Yeah, I’ll miss that Hollywood. I can call it up on a screen anytime I want to, I know, but with the death of Kirk Douglas, I know it’s never coming back. 

Meet Vartox, the most inappropriately costumed superhero of all time

When it’s midsummer and it’s hot and the news is all politics and doom, I turn to old Superman comics, the balm for many an ache. 

I love the ‘pre-Crisis’ era of Superman comics prior to 1986, when Superman could basically do anything and the stories were often batshit crazy. Often drawn by the terrific trusty Curt Swan, these stories juggled planets and killer robots and cosmic coincidences. The Superman stories of the 1970s and early ‘80s are overlooked (you can usually buy issues dirt-cheap), but they’re great fun comics. 

Which brings me to Vartox. Vartox appeared in a dozen or two stories between 1975 and 1986, a superhero from another world who was often Superman’s frenemy. An older man, Vartox could be an interesting counterpoint to the younger Superman. But nobody remembers Vartox because of that. 

They remember what he wore. For some reason writer Cary Bates and Swan decided to make Vartox an EXACT ripoff of Sean Connery’s unflattering nearly nude space cowboy character in the oddball 1974 sci-fi movie Zardoz. Clad in a bizarre orange space diaper, ammo belt, thigh-high boots and a man pony-tail, this was not Connery’s finest hour. 

Why Vartox was designed to so clearly mimic Zardoz is weird and never more so than when this half-naked, excessively hairy character shares panel space with the more modest Superman.

I felt vaguely embarrassed for Superman, having to spend so much time staring at another man’s hairy legs and chest. And dude, you’re flying through space, why the heck wouldn’t you wear something a bit more practical than a vest and thigh-high boots?

All that said, the Vartox stories are often good fun – I like the idea of a balding, older, slightly more melancholy superhero being a mentor to Superman and his “hyper powers” are completely wonderful comic-book gibberish – he apparently can do just about anything, including hyper-future reading, hyper-teleportation, hyper-energy blasts, et cetera. It’s a good drinking game just seeing how many times the phrase “hyper” is used in Vartox tales. 

Vartox has apparently occasionally appeared since his ‘70s-‘80s heyday, but never quite broke out of the C-list. I lift a glass to Vartox, a contender hobbled by perhaps the least flattering costume in comic-book history. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen, and the worlds you created

Arrow could be subtitled, “The Evolution of a Hero.” Oliver Queen started out as a guy running around in a hood murdering bad guys; he ended it as a cosmic Christ-like figure literally sacrificing himself for the entire universe. 

With its final episode this week, I bid a sad farewell to my favourite superhero TV series after 8 years and 170 episodes, which left an entire comic book cosmos spinning it its wake. 

Batwoman? Black Lightning? Supergirl and The Flash? Who could’ve imagined when the dark, gritty first episode of Arrow aired in 2012 it would amount to all this?

Stephen Amell was never really the comics Oliver Queen, a grouchy cynical disillusioned liberal who has always seemed prematurely middle aged. In a lot of ways, TV Arrow was more of a Batman stand-in. Yet Arrow made its Green Arrow work, thanks to Amell’s constantly growing charisma and his sturdy moral centre. 

Arrow started out running away from being a ‘superhero’ show but soon embraced all the goofy possibilities of the medium. Pretty darned obscure comics characters were dredged up – Ragman? Mr Terrific? Wild Dog? It took until Season 4 for the title character to actually call himself “The Green Arrow,” for pete’s sake. 

It all wrapped up with Crisis on Infinite Earths, the live-action adaptation I’d never have imagined possible. Crisis, like most Arrowverse shows, wasn’t perfect, but it was damn close, a giddy, universe-shaking salute to the DC universe. 

“Arrowverse” shows lack the machine-tooled precision of the Marvel movies, but in some ways, their awkwardly episodic charm feels more comic booky to me. Unlike Marvel movies, which tend to be big event after big event, these TV series feel more like the comic books, which just keep coming month after month. 

The shows have been all over the map, quality wise – Flash started great and has gotten progressively worse, Supergirl has gotten better each season, while Legends of Tomorrow is now a completely different show than it started as. Batwoman and Black Lightning do a terrific job of expanding the diversity of comic-book stardom. 

They’ve been far more diverse than the Marvel movies – gay characters have been in the mix since the start, including the first gay superhero to get her own series. Supergirl debuted the first trans character. Meanwhile, all the Marvel movies have mustered up so far is a brief nod in the direction. 

Subtlety isn’t an Arrowverse strong suit – a theme will be hammered home repeatedly. They can be repetitive, cliched and sentimental (number one on my hit list – ending any episode with a sappy montage set to a lame pop song). There’s a lot of plain mediocre and some truly awful episodes in the Arrowverse. But also a lot of moments I’ve loved. 

Yet in many ways the Arrowverse is just as successful as the Marvel Universe has been in movies – introducing entire worlds, broadening horizons and ultimately embracing the joy behind the superheroic concept. 

Here’s to you, Oliver Queen. You kicked it all off. 

Comic conventions and me: Being a fan and a dad

(Been a bit busy lately, but here’s a freelance piece I did late last year that never quite found a home, tied into the local Armageddon Expo series of pop-culture conventions held around New Zealand. It’s also a kind of ramble about being a fan and being a dad. Give it a read and more “content” soon!)

Having a child means passing on the things you love to them, and hoping they stick. 

Every parent does it, whether it’s the All Blacks, the Beatles or Star Wars

When they’re young and malleable as modelling clay, you imprint them with your likes. 

Then as they start to form their own opinions, their shape changes, and as a parent you just hope they kind of hold on to the geeky love for Spider-Man that their dad once taught them. 

For years, my son and I have had a ritual of heading each Labour Weekend to Armageddon Expo, New Zealand’s biggest pop culture convention. I’m a comic book fan, and no son of mine was going to grow up not knowing his Green Lantern from his Green Arrow.

We’ve been at Armageddon pretty much every year from the time he was 5 until now when he’s pushing 16. 

Armageddon is small potatoes compared to some of the massive US comic book conventions I’ve been to, but it’s just right for New Zealand. It’s an assault on the senses with celebrity visits, hundreds of booths filled with every cult item you can imagine, video games blaring, bodies packed tightly together in the aisles and the occasionally overpowering odour of other fans. 

It’s crowded. It’s hot. It’s full of people in amazing costumes, sometimes with really pointy edges. It’s a Disneyland for three days of fans and fandom, and for years we wouldn’t miss it for the world. 

When I look back on my muddled journey of being a dad, I often think of how the boy and I journeyed deep into the world of Armageddon each year, and I tried to show him how to be a fan. 

There was the year we saw two Doctor Whos (well, OK, two actors who played The Doctor) and the boy became very keen to watch this long-running TV show that started years before his parents were even born. 

Over time, we got to see some of the greatest names in science fiction and fantasy history. Christopher Lloyd from Back To The Future, Nichelle Nichols from Star Trek, Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who, Nathan Fillion from Firefly.

We met New Zealand comics creators and bagged weird toys and big bargains and junk food, and ended each visit weighed down by our loot and overstimulated by sensation. When the boy was younger, I’d sometimes carry him back to the car and he’d fall asleep before he even hit the seat. 

It was a little different when I was his age. I was embarrassed to tell most people I read comic books. I had grand mythic adventures with a few like-minded pals playing Dungeons and Dragons until I worried what everyone else would think of me and grew out of it. 

These days, movies starring the Avengers whose comics I tried to hide reading make billions of dollars and what once seemed a bit nerdy and uncool is mainstream culture. People on the street know who Thanos and the Black Panther are. 

At some point in my life – embarrassingly late, I must admit – I got comfortable with telling other actual grown-ups that I’m a huge comic book fan, that I can rattle off obscure trivia about Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko to you until the sun sets. 

Pretty much everyone who’s an avid fan of something feels a bit like an outcast sometimes. Maybe someone bagged on you for liking anime, or digging Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But at a pop culture convention, everyone’s a fan. There’s no shame in your passion. 

It’s OK to like what you like, be what you want to be, embrace whatever fantasy world turns you on. 

That’s the message of a place like Armageddon, where you can dress up like a samurai, a robot or a superhero for a day and be surrounded by your people. And it’s cool. 

That’s not the worst message to teach your son. 

I don’t know how much longer the boy and I will go to Armageddon together, before I become an embarrassment to him or he’d rather hang out with his friends. 

You measure parenthood by rituals, things you do every year which become commonplace until one day you don’t do them at all anymore. 

The boy I once had to crouch down to hug is now nearly as tall as I am, and I still can’t get used to it. He seems to grow a few centimetres a day. 

Now he’s into big epic World War II video games that kind of give me a headache to watch, and the Lego he once spent every waking moment playing with is getting dusty. I still read comic books and keep running out of ways to rearrange my shelf space. 

Once, he would watch Cars over and over. Now, he and I are sitting down to watch Apocalypse Now. He’s not the same little boy I once hopefully tried to tutor in the ways of Star Wars and Marvel Comics. He doesn’t like everything I like. 

But he likes a lot of it. 

He still loves Star Trek and watches reruns with us at least once a week. He’s into his own things, his own passions, and instead of me teaching him about Jedi Knights and Earth-2, he’s the one rattling off factoids to us about the things he’s into. Now he’s the fan, trying to convert us. 

Armageddon is a big, huge, crazy crowded event full of people who are all fans of something, whether it’s Pokemon or Call Of Duty or Deadpool. 

But for me it’ll also always be a place where my son and I bonded over superheroes and spaceships, and I watched him grow from a tiny boy dwarfed by a Dalek to a hulking teenager with his own obsessions, his own thoughts and his own fandom.

May it live long and prosper.